Staring at the Sun

I recently came across these poignant comments from Stephen Charnock in his The Existence and Attributes of God:

Some think a curiosity of knowledge was the cause of the fall of devils; I am sure it was the fall of Adam, and is yet the crime of his posterity; had he been contented to know what God had furnished him with, neither he nor his posterity had smarted under the venom of the serpent’s breath.  All curious and bold inquiries into things not revealed are an attempt upon the throne of God, and are both sinful and pernicious, like to glaring upon the sun, where, instead of a greater acuteness, we meet with blindness, and too dearly buy our ignorance in attempting a superfluous knowledge.  As God’s knowledge is destined to the government of the world, so should ours be to the advantage of the world, and not degenerate into vain speculations.

Any thoughts on it?


11 thoughts on “Staring at the Sun

  1. I’m interested to know how broad his scope is of “things not revealed”. Is revelation only that given in the Scriptures? Does nature reveal anything? Beyond this, are we able to clearly know that which has been revealed?

    Depending on his definitions I may or may not have various problems with his assertion. He could be well within the apophatic tradition of theology, simply holding a reactionary position, or somewhere in between.

    • Charnock has a fairly high view of the importance of general revelation. For him, if unbelievers reject God’s existence, they are rejecting the clear testimony of nature and even implicitly rejecting their own humanity. As far as the apophatic question goes, he certainly doesn’t spend all of his time negating things; his concern here has more to do with whether we will allow ourselves to focus on really speculative questions that don’t conduce to a richer love of God and a richer Christian piety.

      • Thanks for the clarification. In that case, how does he propose that we determine “[a]ll curious and bold inquiries into things not revealed”? This seems to be highly problematic, for if his high view of general revelation correlates to a high view of natural theology, I’m not sure where or how one would effectively draw a line between what is revealed and what is not. If he does not hold a high natural theology, then I’m not sure that he could hold the position that unbelievers can see and thus reject the “clear testimony of nature”.

        As I explore this, I have two problems with what I read here. First, as I said above, I’m not sure how one would determine that which is and is not worth intellectual curiosity. The second is that I think he is putting too much weight on it as the cause of Adam’s fall. For example, with Adam and Eve I think that the question of greed and desires, which seem to function on a less intellectual level, need to also be taken into account.

        Finally, I do agree that purely speculative questions can be pragmatically useless. In the ideal setting, all scholarship should be both an expression of faith and a service to the Church. However, my two problems still remain. I appreciate any further explanation that you can provide (please forgive my ignorance…my research focus has kept me reading in the first six centuries of the Church, but not much beyond that).

        • I think the question of which things ought not to be investigated becomes easier to navigate when we think of the temptation to try to penetrate to all the whys and hows of the divine counsel or divine providence. In this connection, Charnock mentions even things like divination and magic. Another example would be the futility of probing the precise manner of the eternal generation of the Son.

          I agree that Charnock’s emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge as the catalyst for the fall should be balanced with other dimensions and layers of what happened there.

          • Those are good examples, and I would be comfortable with drawing the line with explaining providence and the eternal generation of the Son. Thanks for your clarification.

  2. i wonder if he considers science as an enterprise (or maybe parts of it) as guilty of the sort of thing he’s talking about.


    • I’m not sure that he would see any problems with people undertaking rigorous work in the natural sciences (assuming that what’s you have in mind with ‘science’). He presumably would have something to say about it if they were expecting an ultimate explanation for reality to emerge from, say, biology alone. At least in the context above, he’s issuing a warning about the dangers of idle speculation in theology.

  3. Steve,

    This reminds me of something Calvin said in his commentary on Isaiah: “(regarding the Seraphim of Isaiah’s vision) Let us, therefore, learn that our inquiries concerning God ought never to go beyond what is proper and lawful, that our knowledge may soberly and modestly taste what is far above our capacity. And yet the angels do not cover their face in such a manner as not to be favored with beholding God in some degree; for their flight is not at random. In like manner we too ought to look at God, but only so far as our capacity shall enable us” (p. 203).

    And a couple pages later, “It was always the will of God to repress the insolence of men, in pushing their inquiries about his majesty beyond what is proper; for on this point almost all men are too rash and daring” (206, emphasis mine).

    Charnock’s cautions over “vain speculations” seem to echo Calvin’s worry about inquiries that pass beyond what is “proper” and into the territory of those that are “rash and daring.”

    • Thanks for the Calvin quotes, Kent. I think this is great stuff for theology folk to keep coming back to from time to time in order to examine ourselves and reorient ourselves.

      • I think you are entirely right Steve. Our discussion reminds me of Luther as well. His reflections on God’s “hiddenness”, especially in his Genesis commentary, register a similar theological humility. Come to think of it, Pannenberg has a delightful comment at the beginning of his discussion of God’s attributes: “Any intelligent attempt to talk about God – talk that is critically aware of its conditions and limitations – must begin and end with confession of the inconceivable majesty of God which transcends all our concepts.” This didn’t mean for Pannenberg that God-talk comes to an end, but that it must proceed in the awareness of the utter uniqueness and majesty of the object toward whom it is directed.

  4. Steve:

    Wouldn’t there be a temptation to Vanity, in declaring that one’s traditional, even core religious values are all that ever needs to be said or thought, about God? Especially, isn’t there a danger in defining even “spirituality,” as to merely consist in merely familiar theologial ideas?

    For example, regarding my own recent, rather radical questioning of the place of Jesus in the Trinity? I believe that the Bible and Jesus’ ambiguity on his own status – “who do you say I am” – reflects a certain humility, even about his own status. Even on Jesus’ own part. And I find that opens up to … a different and possibly better kind of spirituality, after all. One that is not too closed, about the nature of God. A position which is a methodological necessity, in academic theology, or religious study. In spite of the pastoral convenience of conventionality.

    To be sure, I generally – in spite of my academic and biblical objections to the concept – passively accept the place of Jesus as a member of the Godhead. And I find that his self-sacrificial humility especially, contributed greatly to modern “spirituality.” At the same time though, what if we take Jesus’ theological and Christological humility seriously? That would open up to a far more open view of the status of Jesus, and of God. Open enough to allow much academic speculation; and even progress.

    In fact, for example, continuing to regard conventional ideas of the “Christ”? Though many Christians believe that Jesus was wholly God, and was even the “fulfillment” of even “all” the Biblical promises, still however, most also – inconsistently – believe that somehow, the entire “kingdom” promised by God, was not fully realized by the first appearance of Jesus; and that somehow, yet anotehr, “second” appearance/”parousia of Christ will be necessary, before all is fulfilled. THis would suggest that there was something somehow, incomplete in the manifestation of God, in the first coming of Jesus; and that still somehow, there is more to come. ANd more we need to know. Than standard, comfortingly familiar conventions.

    Is CHristianity somehow, still incomplete therefore? And open to new information … even regarding very basic, core beliefs? Indeed, in the Second Coming, there are many reversals of what is accepted thought in religious circles: things thought “first” are found to be “last”; many prophets are found to have been “false”; and indeed, what many thought to be “Christ” turns out to have been an anti-Christ.

    I don’t think therefore, that we can simply rest content, with conventional theological notions; even regarding the definition and nature of “Christ.” And I think the Bible itself – and Jesus himself – lead us to that epistemological humility, and questioning.

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